November 16, 2021
When teachers in the Anoka-Hennepin School district went on strike in 1982, an untenured, 23-year-old Anne DeVout Solie knew her job was in jeopardy. Her mom told the worried young teacher about a new school that was opening in St. Paul, and suggested she apply. But she hesitated: the school required three years of experience, and Anne DeVout Solie (now Anne DeVout Atchison) only had two.
“Well, why don’t you give them a call and just find out about them?” the elder DeVout advised.
Atchison called. More than 40 years later Atchison, now an MPA Middle School English teacher, is grateful for her mother’s wisdom and nudge.
In reflecting on that initial job inquiry, Atchison said, “I’m 23, and I’m talking to the woman who picked up the phone. I assume it’s the secretary, and we’re hitting it off. I’m asking her questions; she’s asking me questions. At the end, I ask about the salary, and the woman says, ‘I will tell you that, if you tell me your name.’ I do, and in return ask hers.”
It was Lois Kreischer, the wife of Mounds Park Academy co-founder and visionary Bob Kreischer, who also served as the director of admissions, business manager, and co-founder.
Lois Kreischer (now Sandy Kreischer Smith) encouraged the young teacher to apply, though added, “Just so you know we’re looking for more experienced teachers.” Fate intervened when the stated goal on Atchison’s resume matched the one expressed in MPA’s first brochure, which was being printed at the time: “to create the conditions, within the school environment, for each individual to develop to the best of his or her ability.” She secured the interview and then the job.
Started “On A Dream And A Shoestring”
Bob Kreischer was a well-respected and beloved teacher, counselor, assistant principal, and principal in California before the death of his father-in-law compelled the family to move to Minnesota. The couple’s niece and nephew were students at Breck, so they knew the west metro college preparatory school was hiring. Kreischer applied to and was offered a teaching position. As the new teacher, Kreischer taught “all the classes nobody else wanted” and took “a huge pay cut,” Smith once said. After only a year, Kreischer became Breck’s Middle School director.
Kreischer left Breck shortly after his promotion—with no job prospect—dreaming of a school where everyone had a voice. At the time, Smith was a professional potter with her own shop in Afton. While her hands were busy making pots, her mind was exploring ways her husband could create the school he envisioned. She had notebooks full of ideas, budgets, and impressions of schools she visited that were for sale. Smith said she often took their daughter Kristi on trips to see schools, swearing her to secrecy not to tell her daddy.
One day, her friend Joan Munzner visited Smith’s shop. The potter asked the future MPA French and German founding teacher to come to her house so she could share Bob’s idea of starting his own school. Over coffee at the kitchen table, encouraged by Munzner’s enthusiasm for the idea, Kreischer gained a new perspective on his dream: together they could make it a reality.
They enlisted the support of community leaders, prospective parents, future teachers, and required board members and launched what would become MPA. As the initial values statement declared, “Our school was founded on a dream and a shoestring.”
An Early Commitment To The Whole Child And Social Justice
For Atchison, the early conversations about the vision for MPA—and whether they could really pull it off—remain deep in her soul. The fledgling team wondered if the buses would show up that first day on September 7, 1982. They did, and MPA became a real school, exceeding the expectations of all involved.
At the heart of Kreischer’s vision was the whole-child approach, which was a new concept in the early 1980s. He stressed repeatedly that “the arts are as valuable as academics, which are as valuable as athletics”—and that we are whole people. Kreischer focused on creating a community where the students knew their teachers, and the teachers knew them.
“Our secret sauce was that we knew our kids so we could navigate how to help them reach their potential,” said Atchison. “The real relational foundation combined with the whole-child approach really set us apart from other schools. We allowed each child to walk their path in a way they were meant to, and it was our job to provide them with the experiences that would help make that happen.”
Early on, there were countless conversations among the faculty and administrators about what it would take to “do a school right” and create a “rigorous but humane” culture that connected with students individually and from the heart. Everyone had a real genuine desire to broaden kids’ world so they could go out and make a difference. There was a sense of social justice before the concept became commonplace in more progressive schools. Atchison shared that Richard Meacock, a literature teacher and founding faculty member, came out as gay in the 1980s, and was a strong gay-rights advocate. It was highly unusual to have openly gay teachers at that time, one fact among many that demonstrate how inclusivity has been part of MPA from the start.
An Emphasis On Collaboration Among Faculty
The teachers MPA hired in the early years shared a common vision around creating a different type of school and learning environment for children. The faculty—half of whom came from public schools and half from Breck—appreciated Kreischer’s collaborative spirit, support, and trust in their judgment. They worked together and talked through how to design a cohesive curriculum, when they were all coming from diverse teaching environments. They answered simple questions like: What year are we going to teach history? When are we going to teach geometry?
Originally, MPA hired Atchison, who had an elementary school license, to teach fifth and sixth grades. But when Maureen Conway, the social studies teacher, announced she was pregnant with her second set of twins, Kreischer turned to Atchison to fill that role.
“I remember saying to Bob, ‘I’m so sorry. I can’t. I’m an elementary teacher,’” said Atchison. “He responded, ‘But this is a private school, Anne, so you can, and I’ll help you and be with you every step of the way.’ And he did. Those moments modeled for me, as a very young teacher, how to move people along and help them grow. And it’s what we do with kids: we walk beside them.”
That first year Atchison taught fifth through eighth grade social studies and one class of fifth and sixth grade English. MPA had 13 eighth graders in its inaugural year. Atchison said they divided the students, and she taught the five of the 13. The team decided she would teach a civics class and Minnesota history. Atchison described adventures that would never be allowed today: spending the day riding along with a police officer—each of the five in their own car, spelunking in the since-closed sandstone caves in what is now Lilydale Regional Park, looking at microfiche in the Minnesota History Center and driving students in their cars to have these amazing experiences.
For sixth and seventh grades, Atchison taught American History. She asked Kreischer how best to choose a textbook. Always gracious and generous with his time and investment in Atchison, Kreischer sat down with her, and together they selected one. When she was teaching the fifth and sixth grade literature class, she again went to Kreischer for guidance.
“At the time, Houghton-Mifflin and Scott-Forsman basal readers were commonly used,” said Atchison. “I remember going to Bob and saying, ‘Bob, you know some of these teachers who are much more experienced than I am feel/think the basal reader is the way to go. But I’d sure like to try some novel studies, what do you think?’ Here I am 24 years old, and he says, ‘Go for it. Do it. Follow your heart. Do what you believe is right. I trust you.’ I think that trust that he had in all of us—that we would do right by his vision and do right by the kids and the school—was pivotal.”
While Kreischer took a collaborative approach in everything the school did early on, he felt the weight of the world on his shoulders, according to Atchison. “Bob was a can-do guy and a dreamer—and as introverted as they come. Anytime we would have an open house, Bob would need to pull himself away. He’d be sweating bullets and shaking. So much rested on what we were doing.”
As a fellow introvert, Atchison empathized with Kreischer’s nervousness surrounding public forums. Yet, Atchison observed, “When you meet Bob, he is this warm, quiet, soft-spoken man who has this charisma that is very unusual. He is like a gentle pied piper who says, ‘Come with me. Let us do this together. For Bob, it was always about the ‘us.’”
Finding Her Place As A Middle School English Teacher
Atchison is the only remaining founding teacher at MPA. She was five years younger than the next youngest teacher in 1982. Few of her current peers know her teaching license is in elementary education: she has been on the Middle School faculty the entire 40 years of MPA’s existence. Early on she taught math, English, and social studies before finding her permanent place as an English teacher.
There is a common theme in Atchison’s early years of teaching at MPA: circumstances (fate?) led her to where she belonged. Early in the school’s history, Atchison submitted several student-written stories to a contest. The judges wrote back and said, “What’s going on with this school? These stories are so well written.” In turn, they wrote a story celebrating MPA. It was only the second or third year of the school, and MPA was gaining a lot of attention. So, Atchison started submitting different students’ work to publications, and they had “many, many successful publications” in those early years. Atchison became the English teacher, and the rest is…history.
Atchison loves teaching middle schoolers. “In the midst of all of this angst, students are just beginning to be abstract thinkers and figuring out who they are,” said Atchison. “In my experience, kids in middle school honestly believe they can change the world. There is no cynicism, and it is so beautiful. You put these world problems and issues in front of them, and their reaction is ‘Yeah, we can do this. We can make a difference.’”
In the eighth grade right now, Atchison is part of a project headed by MPA science teacher John Milam called Future City. The students must design a city in 2121 and mitigate waste and pollution so we can survive. In her English class, the students are writing an essay; in social studies they are creating a presentation. The entire effort is a competition, along the lines of Destination Imagination. But in Atchison’s mind it is not just an assignment.
“I was just telling the kids ‘This isn’t a game, it’s your life and future,’” said Atchison. “I told them, ‘Think of it, I’m 50 years older than you are, and in 50 years, will Florida still be here? What do you need to be thinking about as you’re designing these cities and building these models? This is relevant stuff, and one of you could come up with a feasible, innovative futuristic idea that we need to use today.’”
The Role Of Technology In The Classroom
Atchison said she is still teaching because every single year is brand new and challenges her to uncover what her students need. When she started the 2021-22 school year, Atchison recognized that many students had been spending many hours in front of screens. She wanted them to rediscover their love of reading and reconnect with the magic of real books. Stacks of options crowd the corner of her desk.
For the first time in her 40 years at MPA, Atchison is dedicating class time to independent reading. She always has felt she had to “teach, teach, teach.” Yet, this year, for the first 20 minutes of her class, students are reading paper books, turning pages. Then, she has a two-minute task for them to complete about what they read; it is an easy assignment because the focus is to “get those pages turning again.”
Insisting on paper books in class is not a rejection of technology per se. While Atchison embraces the use of technology, she has a clear sense of when it is time to “close the lids.”
“For me, as an English teacher, the lids on the computer go up when it’s time to write,” said Atchison. “When it’s time to read, when it’s time to think, when it’s time to interact, the lids are closed. Our world has gone in the direction of technology, but people and relationships are always, always, always more important than screens.”
MPA was an early adopter of technology in the classroom. During MPA’s first year, Joe Prouse, the school’s assistant director, was working on a deal with Control Data to get a computer in the hands of every one of Atchison’s students back in 1982. While ultimately unsuccessful in that initial attempt, Prouse helped secure a Commodore computer for each one of Atchison’s English fifth and sixth grade students early in her tenure.
“There is a challenge in staying cutting edge and holding onto who you are and your values,” Atchison said. “The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of how we persevered.”
Perspective On The Pandemic And MPA’s Core Values
At the beginning of March 2020, Dr. Bill Hudson gathered the administrative team and shared the possibility of schools being closed due to a potential pandemic. MPA sent computers home with students before spring break, even with fifth-grade students who normally were not allowed to take them home. The fifth graders had their computers sealed in envelopes—and were told to bring them back to school with the envelopes still sealed if school resumed.
“For Bill to educate us about the pandemic before it came, showed tremendous leadership, foresight and vision. What we were doing was unchartered territory, and we were committed to doing our best,” said Atchison. “I remember on that first day of remote learning, I told every student to grab their computer and stand up. I said, `Okay, guys, now we’re going to pivot 45 degrees,’ and together we all turned. I said, ‘It’s a new direction, what do you see?’ That was where we started, and that spring for me as a teacher, who has taught for 42 years, is probably one of my finest hours.”
During the pandemic, MPA gave teachers “structure with freedom to do what was right for kids,” said Atchison. In an email on April 6, 2020, Middle School director Dr. Jennifer Milam wrote: “MPA curriculum is our guide…AND…you are free to be creative and shift as you need and as students need.” For Atchison, that message reflected the same ideology that grounded MPA when Kreischer, Smith, Munzner, Prouse, Meacock and she started the school together 40 years ago.
“With COVID, we were in a sense pivoting, trying to create something new to make…not necessarily the world a better place…but to make the very best of the situation we faced—and to make it an adventure. After all, aren’t security and adventure what we want to provide kids? Because we got that as teachers, we could pass that on to our students, and I taught in a way I never had before.”
Taking Risks—And Learning From Them—Is Core To MPA
By starting MPA 40 years ago, the school founders all took a calculated risk. Atchison said that the idea that the mistakes-are-wonderful-opportunities-to-learn mantra has been with MPA from the beginning. Today, Atchison sees that risk-taking support reflected in the leadership of her boss, Dr. Jennifer Milam. Through and through teachers are encouraged to take reasonable risks, to fall if they need to fall—and then model to students how to get back up.
Falling is easier when there is a community of loving and supportive people to catch you and guide you back into the right direction.
Every single day for many years, Bob Kreischer served lunch and greeted students by name. Even as the school grew, he knew all the students. Atchison said MPA could have grown faster, but Kreischer wanted to maintain the community feel and the sense of a shared adventure—both nurtured by Kreischer’s leadership. Today, Hudson greets students and families every morning, welcoming them to MPA and the adventures that will unfold.
When asked about her hopes and dreams for the next 40 years of MPA, Atchison—ever the English teacher—said, “I wonder where we are in our story. Hopefully, we’re just at the beginning of a real grand adventure—that we’re facing our rising action and not yet to the top.”
To honor teachers like Anne DeVout Atchison and 40 Years of MPA, please consider making a gift during the Fall Campaign at moundsparkacademy.org/donate. If you have any questions, please contact Jennifer Rogers, director of development and community engagement, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-748-5532.